Thursday, April 13, 2017
Backpacking in the Hocking Hills (yeah, it's possible)
In looking at regional locations for a quick weekend backpacking trip with some scenery, I settled on the Hocking Hills Region. Don't get me wrong, Zaleski is nice and there is some scenery, it's just not like the Hocking Hills. Yes, you heard that right, Hocking Hills. Even with the "parking lot attractions" and the tourists, it turned out to be a place where you could find some solitude on the trail between the major attractions and the tourism wasn't overly distracting. I know, sounds crazy, but it actually is a nice trip. For this trip, the 15 year old and myself turned this area into a 20 mile or so overnight backpacking trip with fantastic scenery.
The trip from Cedar Falls back to Ash Cave is a retread of previously covered trail but there is no way around that unless you want to hike the road. We saved the Ash Tower Lookout for the return trip. From our camp back to the Ash Cave parking lot, we hiked another 8 miles and it turned out to be an unexpectedly nice short weekend backpacking trip. If you are tired of backpacking Zaleski, Shawnee, the Twin Valley Trail, or any other local official backpacking trail, this might be your best bet for local eye candy on a short weekend - I would highly recommend it.
First of all, you need to talk to the park office at the Hocking Hills State Park Campground to be able to get an overnight permit for your car since the park officially closes at dark - you don't want to get your car towed and as long as the rangers know what is going on, you're good. The park office and the rangers could not have been more pleasant and helpful once we explained what we were trying to do. Secondly, you'll want to reserve a "family walk-in campsite" for your overnight stay, which cost us $23, because they don't let you camp just anywhere on the trail and this is by far the best option. This hike-in only campground, which is nicely situated a bit away from the actual state campground (39 26.17698, 082 31.59930), has nothing but a water spout and a dumpster near the entrance gate and few pit toilets placed at various locations on the hike-in trail. As a backpacker, the fact that your site may have a fire ring and picnic table is just a bonus. Once you've covered those bases, your ready to start your trip.
We parked at the Ash Cave parking area, put the overnight permit on the dashboard, and took off from there. You'll be a bit of an oddity carrying a full pack in this location and the little kid tourists will want an explanation, but it's a great place to start with the scenery. After heading up the stairs past the Ash Cave waterfall (above), you'll head over towards Cedar Falls using the Buckeye Trail. Cedar Falls is a nice place to take that first break before descending into the gorge.
Cedar Falls is one of my favorite areas in the region and after hiking down to view the falls, we hiked back up out of the falls area and started on the rim trail towards Old Man's Cave. The rim trail provides a nice hike above the gorge bottom and sends you near the Rose Lake overlook, before getting into the Old Man's Cave area.
After Rose Lake, another mile or two puts you near Old Man's Cave. Fight the urge to get down in the gorge from the rim trail and instead, make your way over to the Upper Falls. You will want to get into the gorge and all that tourist riddled eye candy in the morning before anyone else gets on the trail.
Now comes the tricky part. You can hike over to the campground office from here using the Buckeye Trail, make your way through a meadow over to the road that the walk-in campground is located upon, and then hike the road. This, however, isn't recommended. The road is curvy and butts right up to a rock wall on one side, making this a pretty dangerous option in these days of distracted driving. Instead, I would go up into the state park campground, meander around until you find the easternmost campground loop, and then take a gravel service road over to the general area of the walk-in campground. Our campsite was .5 miles from the gate, so we found ourselves walking a couple of extra miles to get water for dinner and to throw trash into the dumpsters. All told, the trip from Ash Cave to the camping location turned out to be 10.5 miles.
After breaking camp in the morning, we headed back to Old Man's Cave. This time we went down into the gorge by the Upper Falls. By getting there before 8AM, we had very few tourists to contend with and the gorge was the highlight of the trip. After passing the lower falls, we continued on the Buckeye Trail (Grandma Gatewood Trail) through the gorge and back to Cedar Falls. By doing the rim trail on day 1 and the gorge trail on day 2, we didn't have to retrace our steps and essentially made this section into a loop - I would highly recommend this route. There were quite a few active waterfalls dropping into the gorge from the rim because of recent rains and that made the trip even better. By this time, there was a little bit of activity between Old Man's Cave and Cedar Falls but no traffic jams.